Robin Ends Plymouth's Pilgrimage
The financial rewards for attaining Champions League football and for staying in/ gaining promotion to the Premiership have become so lucrative, that the F.A. Cup has indefinitely been robbed of its appeal over the years. Nevertheless, Third Round day still has the indellible whiff of romance and with the Gunners long since out of the title race, the F.A. Cup has a municipal importance in N5 this year and that was reflected in Wenger's starting line up. Whilst Adebayor was allowed to perch on the bench with a cup of bovril, only Manuel Almunia was rested with Gael Clichy suffering a slight calf strain and Kolo Toure out with an inflamed groin (ooh err). Anyone notice how Toure and Gallas' injuries seem to conveniently overlap one another of late? The garrulous Gallas was once again overlooked for the armband and Robin van Persie took the captaincy. I must confess I thought Arsene would give it to Silvestre, but his laughable attempt at captaincy at Burnley is an experiment that should not be repeated.
The game began in a lively enough manner, whilst not narcotically compulsive viewing, a few early challenges from Pilgrims skipper Karl Duguid showed the visitors hadn't just come for Eboue's autograph. It took fifteen minutes for the home side to create their first chance, Eboue played a crisp one two with Nasri on the edge of the area but Larrieu beat away Eboue's left footed effort. An Arsenal corner was cleared to the edge of the box, Eboue worked the ball back in to the right hand side of the area where William Gallas was lurking, he controlled and shot from close range but Larrieu smartly closed the angle. The Gunners were forced into an early change when Kieran Gibbs had to replace the hamstrung Silvestre whilst Gallas raced down the tunnel, presumably to replace a contact lens. It was in this time of defensive flux that Plymouth created their best chance, the ball found Paul Gallagher on the edge of the area, the Blackburn loanee curled a dipping shot ominously towards the Arsenal goal but Fabianski was well positioned to help it over the bar. A yard either side and Plymouth might well have been celebrating. The away support were in good spirits and even found time for a chant of 'you dirty Northern bastards' following a foul by Ramsey which drew great mirth. Eboue once more had a low shot saved by Larrieu but the score at the break was deadlocked.
The home support was growing impatient due to no small hauteur on their part, Bendtner in particular was coming in for completely unfair flack, thousands of eyes boring into him, willing him to mess up to give them a reason to groan at their newly appointed chief whipping boy. At one point in the second half, he picked the ball up in the cnetre circle, looked around to see all Arsenal players ahead of himtightly marked, so he shifted it back to Gallas and was roundly hounded for the heinous crime of retaining possession. Football fans really depress me sometimes. The second half yielded a tactical shift with Bendtner moved to the right where the increased space suited him, Nasri was moved into a central position where he was allowed to roam and find space, whilst van Persie was deployed a few yards further forward in the central striker role. It earned instant dividends in the opening seconds of the second half, Nasri's corner was swung into the area where Robin van Persie was left in a country acre to head the ball into the roof of the net. Two minutes later, a rout appeared to be on the cards. Eboue trotted down the right with intent, before slipping the ball into the channel for the advanced van Persie, he brilliantly twisted Chris Barker before delivering a low cross which deflected into the net via Pilgrims debutant David Gray, despite Bendtner's best attempts to claim it.
But if the rest of the match should have been a mere procession, then Plymouth had other ideas. Luke Summerfield floated a free kick into the area which was not properly cleared, Gray comfortably skinned Kieran Gibbs before Karl Duguid got himself in front of the slumbering van Persie to slide the cross home and half the defecit. Though the ostentation and length of his subsequent celebration suggested the goal was considered a souvenir more than a genuine chance to force an unwanted replay. Arsenal could rest easy with four minutes left, the Gunners won the ball back in the final third, Samir Nasri, floating in his free role, picked the ball up and lifted it into the path of van Persie. The Dutch skipper tried to lob Larrieu but the French keeper got fingertips to it, but van Persie was on hand to lash the rebound in off the udnerside of the bar with his right foot with the ball rising. Nasri's deflected shot looped onto the bar in injury time, but a fourth would perhaps have been harsh on the visitors whose application was admirable throughout. You've the feeling that if they put that sort of effort into every game, they would be sitting higher than 15th in the Championship. In the end, we got the job done professionally and deservedly go through to the 4th Round, big spenders Manchester City and Chelsea cannot say the same this morning. Plymouth are a side used to more austere surroundings than those they played in yesterday but did not look intimidated, the seriousness with which we took the game suggests Arsene realises, like most of us, that the title chase is up and has been for some time. Still, I'm hoping for Kettering away in the next round.LD.